Iva Vukušić

Assistant Professor in International History, Utrecht University

Dr. Iva Vukušić is an Assistant Professor in International History at Utrecht University, and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. She is a historian and a genocide scholar, and her work is on irregular armed groups, genocide, mass violence and transitional justice, especially criminal accountability. Before coming to The Hague in 2009, she spent three years in Sarajevo, where she worked as a researcher and analyst at the Special Department for War Crimes at the Office of the Prosecutor. She is a frequent contributor in public debates and has been interviewed for the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, de Volkskrant, the BBC, etc. Her first book Serbian Paramilitaries and the Breakup of Yugoslavia: State Connections and Patterns of Violence was published in September 2022 in the Contemporary Security Studies at Routledge. Iva is also one of three editors of the new CEU Press series “Perpetrators of Organized Violence: Eastern, Central and South-Eastern Europe”.  

  • Congratulations on your recently published book Serbian Paramilitaries and the Breakup of Yugoslavia: State Connections and Patterns of Violence (Routledge, 2022). Before going into more detail, could you share what got you interested in researching paramilitaries and mass violence?

Thank you. I am from the former Yugoslavia. I was born and grew up in Zagreb. I am not a survivor—I was lucky enough not to be harmed directly, and my family was lucky—but I remember the war. I remember being afraid, as a ten-year-old kid, I remember nationalist rhetoric, sleeping in the basement; I remember refugees joining my class, the economic consequences of war we were all feeling. I had a personal connection to these themes, however indirect. That probably led to a strong sense I had growing up that war and violence shape societies and that those victimized by violence deserve redress. Before starting the PhD in history at Utrecht University that resulted in this book (in 2015), I spent a decade researching war crimes and accountability. I followed trials daily at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) since I moved to The Hague in 2009. Before that, I lived in Sarajevo for three years and worked as an analyst and researcher at the Special War Crimes Department of the Prosecutor’s Office in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There, I worked with investigators and prosecutors and built cases for trial. In sum, I’ve been working in and around war crimes prosecution for about 15 years and this book is a culmination of this work.   

  • How would you summarize the main arguments that you make in your book?

First of all, it is important to say that the book represents historical research and it is based largely, but not exclusively, on ICTY archives, i.e., records collected during investigations into war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, and documents which were generated by the proceedings themselves, such as witness testimony. Nearly five thousand witnesses testified during the almost 25 years of the Tribunal’s work, and these ICTY records are immense and incredibly valuable. For those who are interested, I recently published an article titled “Archives of Mass Violence” which is open access where I talk about this collection.

Crucially, the arguments I make in the book are based on those primary sources and not court judgments. This is because, while history and law share many characteristics—one being the reliance on authenticated materials as evidence—they are practiced by different epistemic communities and rely on different rules, logics and standards. That is why in my research, I analyze evidence and not what judges concluded about individual guilt in the narrower legal sense.
I argue that there were deep connections between the regime of Slobodan Milošević and several paramilitary units, such as the Arkan’s Tigers, Red Berets, Scorpions and others, e.g., units mobilized and organized through the Serbian Radical Party and its leader Vojislav Šešelj. This, however, is nothing new to those who have followed scholarship and especially investigative journalism on the topic since the 1990s. My distinct contribution builds on all that work, explaining some of the mechanisms through which the regime created and maintained plausible deniability, i.e., the ability of the state to outsource violence to seemingly independent actors and protect itself from damage such as sanctions or criminal responsibility. I unpack how units operated and practices which ensured formal and administrative distance from the regime.

Furthermore, I trace the life cycle of key units, from the early days of the war in Croatia, through Bosnia and Herzegovina, all the way to Kosovo. To do that, I explore the social, economic, and political context which aided the process of unit creation and the factors that perpetuated their engagement, such as profit from organized crime. I also, towards the end of the book, analyze what happened after the fall of Milošević, and how the government led by Zoran Đinđić struggled to tame these actors and advance a democratic transition. These efforts, and the resistance by some of the principal members of key units, is what cost him his life. Importantly, the person who pulled the trigger that killed the reformist Prime Minister was a longtime member of an elite paramilitary.  

Another argument my book makes is on paramilitary violence. I did the first in-depth analysis of paramilitary violence and explain how and why the way units were set up and operated influenced not only how they attacked civilians but had serious implications on what happened to the perpetrators in the aftermath. The differences between the paramilitary units determined how (un)likely they were to face prosecution. I argue that all paramilitaries were not the same, and that there were substantial differences between them.

Finally, I think part of my contribution is methodological. I show how a researcher can use the available ICTY evidence and transcripts—its archives—to research the history of the war and the behavior of its key actors.

  • Dejan Anastasijević, the late Serbian investigative journalist, commented that paramilitary units were “a crucial instrument in the establishment of ethnically pure Serbian territories”. What made paramilitary units crucial in this particular context?

Paramilitaries were a way for the regime and its partners, mainly the local Serb leaderships in Croatia and BiH, to achieve their territorial and demographic goals while not suffering the consequences for the crimes these units were committing to advance these goals. Much like governments elsewhere (e.g., Wagner in the case of Russia), the regime used these units to supplement its dwindling troop numbers, and to make sure they had the men (and it was pretty much exclusively men in these units) who would not hesitate when it came to expelling non-Serb civilians out of towns and villages the regime and its partner wanted to claim as theirs. These units, as some of their own members testified, did things “no one else wanted to do”. So, they provided plausible deniability and a way for the regime to boost its forces and advance its goals while limiting the consequences of their unlawful behavior.

  • As you point out in the introduction to your book, “investigating how perpetrators harmed civilians is a vital part of establishing a historical record.” Could you elaborate on this further?

War crimes trials records are important beyond the outcome of any individual trial. For people who lost family members, it is very important to know what happened, and facts like this are often established in a trial even if the individual is acquitted. Secondly, collecting documents and hearing testimony is vital for preserving a memory of these violent events for posterity. Thirdly, these materials are crucial for combatting widespread denial, especially now when many have argued we live in a post-truth context where there is a lot of fake news and where anything goes when it comes to information. This collection and preservation of evidence is an effort to say, “no, everything does not go and there is a thing called truth and this is it”. As the American scholar Diane Orentlicher said years ago, these kinds of trials “narrow the space of denial”. For example, for Srebrenica we know, due to these trials, almost hour per hour what took place. So, it’s very hard now to say “nothing happened” – the evidence that is available in public space simply makes that very difficult. That is why even the most hard-core Serbian nationalists tend not to say “nothing happened” – they say something did happen (in Serbian “strašan zločin”, a “terrible crime”), but that it did not constitute genocide. Therefore, trials enable us to know and preserve facts and that is, in itself, valuable.

  • Why is it crucial for scholars to comprehend the roles and nature of paramilitary violence during conflict?

Paramilitaries and irregular armed groups are not a uniquely Balkan phenomenon. In the book, I spent several pages in the introduction to explain how and why I use the term “paramilitary”, and there is considerable discussion on the terminology in this and other historical contexts. However, what is undeniable and is reported in research by scholars and international organizations is that the number of irregular armed groups, i.e., those armed groups which are not formally and legally part of the state apparatus is growing world-wide. It is key to understand who they are and what they do, and why, to punish perpetrators of mass violence, act preventively when possible, to mitigate consequences for civilians and, finally, to establish a historical record. Victims are, I remain convinced, honored, and commemorated by simply knowing what happened to them.

  • What did it mean to be a member of a paramilitary unit?

It is difficult for me to answer that. On a personal level, unit members tended to reflect on the stand for example, of the comradery, the discipline, the sense of duty (even if they were misguided about the goals of what they were involved in). For some former members, the experience resembles how army veterans talk about past experience of war. A few spoke about being disappointed once they became involved, when they realized what their engagements involved. Here it is important to say that not every member of a paramilitary unit is necessarily a murderer, rapist, or torturer. People joined for all kinds of reasons, economic reasons being a factor, alongside peer pressure and sometimes a sense of adventure. Some went in and became killers. Some joined that already had a history of violence, and a number were previously in prison for violent crime offences. Some members turned to organized crime. So, it is important to understand that paramilitary members were diverse and their experiences varied.

  • As you clarify in your book, Serbia has a long and rich paramilitary tradition. What are some of the most significant parts of this tradition and what is their relevance for the contemporary context?

I believe Dmitar Tasić is much better placed to discuss the details of the paramilitary tradition, but what is certain is that 20th century Serbia (and the region) has witnessed substantial paramilitary mobilization, from the Balkan Wars to the Second World War. Many of the groups in the 1990s used terms, symbols and clothes that reflected this tradition (e.g., the various Chetnik groups). Politicians across the region during the 1990s referred to events from the Second World War more broadly and used them in their propaganda. Actors, events, violence, grievances and real and distorted historical memory of the 1940s were definitely on the minds of those who picked up arms in 1991 and 1992.

  • You write about “instrumental” and “expressive” violence. Could you clarify the two?

In the book I analyzed primary documents and the trial records and concluded that different units attacked civilians differently. Some units were much more likely to engage in particular cruelty and torture. I won’t go into details due to the limitations of space, but basically, some units were more likely to perpetrate “instrumental” violence – violence that was concretely aimed at a particular goal, such as taking over a village. This included targeted killings, arrests, beatings. But this was violence that was not staged for any particular audience, and it aimed to be quick and efficient. To paraphrase a quote from my book, these guys come in, shoot people in the head, and move on. Other units were more likely to stage very public acts of violence, where the purpose of the violence extended much beyond the act itself. Some units took the time to torture in ways which required preparation and imagination. At times, they spent time to torture people they knew. Some aimed not only to kill but also emotionally damage anyone who survived.

  • There is still ongoing denial in Serbia regarding crimes committed by paramilitaries and other units during the 1990s conflicts, while war criminals are often celebrated as heroes. What are some factors that contribute to these circumstances?

Sadly, this is not a problem unique to Serbia or the region. Many societies suffer from this problem, an inability to face their own pasts, and interrogate what was done in their name and to whom. We see societies grappling with legacies of slavery and colonialism and an inability to face up to the enduring racism that still surrounds them. The fact is that Serbia never truly reformed post-Milošević. The dominant political forces in this past decade are not reformist, in many ways the 2003 assassination of Đinđić arrested some of those processes and while some trials did take place (and are taking place) these reforms were not sufficiently deep. The political discourse which is still loaded when it comes to the 1990s, the state of the judiciary and the state security, the relationship with Kosovo, the media scene, the education system, they all contribute to this. Frankly, I am not optimistic about the future when it comes to dealing with the past. As I see it, the best days of war crimes prosecution in the former Yugoslavia are behind us.

  • On a related note, what are some of the main elements that hinder domestic prosecution of war crimes in Serbia?

As elsewhere, the one decisive factor that determines what happens with investigations and prosecutions of alleged perpetrators of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity in the post-conflict period is political will to prosecute. To conduct fair and efficient prosecutions, what is needed are resources, and resources require financial investment. Given that prosecutions of perpetrators from one’s own side are politically difficult, many governments refuse to do it, or do as little as possible. I think Serbia is such a case where very little is currently being done, and civil society reports (such as from the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade) say that. However, Serbia is not alone in avoiding dealing with politically difficult prosecutions. Croatia was recently also criticized by the former ICTY prosecutor (who is now prosecutor at the Residual Mechanism, the daughter institution of sorts of the ICTY) for not engaging sufficiently on prosecuting war crimes cases, especially those that involve suspects from the Croatian ‘side’. So, what is lacking is political will to prosecute and any incentive to do so in the form of EU accession seems to have evaporated in the past years. Compounding that are the very real effects COVID has had (and may continue to have) on the speed with which cases can be heard. Finally, biology plays a role. Almost 30 years after the war, many suspects and witnesses have died. In some cases, that also then means the end of any prospect for a measure of justice to be achieved.

  • Digital media changed how world conflicts and their aftermaths are followed, perceived, and analyzed. What would you point out as some of the main roles, as well as advantages and disadvantages, of digital media during and after large scale conflicts?

This is a topic of much contemporary research so it’s very difficult to say something meaningful in a paragraph, but since the war in Syria and now even more so in Ukraine, we’ve seen a massive growth in the use of digital tools to record and collect potential evidence to use in criminal proceedings. What we see in Ukraine is incredible investigative journalism using digital tools to establish which units are most likely to have been involved in attacking civilians (e.g. New York Times investigation in Bucha). Drone-mounted cameras, CCTV, phone records, in combination with other sources such as military documents, witness statements and social media data, is being put together, like a puzzle, to see who the perpetrators are. However, there is so much data that it is difficult to analyze it all in a meaningful way, and store it, so that is a challenge for current and future investigators. We are only at the beginning of this unprecedented development of the rising role of tech, and we will see how it will play out, most notably in relation to Ukraine as this is where a lot of documentation is currently done.

  • Last but not least, what are some aspects of your research that you are currently focusing on? Any specific topics that you would like to explore further in the near future?

As many researchers, practitioners and scholars working on war crimes and justice, I am currently following closely what is happening in relation to crimes perpetrated in Ukraine. I live in The Hague, and have been here for over a decade, so I am well placed to follow discussions from this international criminal law perspective. I am fascinated by law, by institutions and how they can respond, very imperfectly, to mass violence and wartime suffering. The efforts to pursue accountability for crimes in Ukraine involve many actors – states, international organizations, and institutions (such as the International Criminal Court) and civil society (Ukrainian and international) are very active and it’s fascinating to observe how far discussions about accountability have gone in the past 30 years (since the ICTY was established). Finally, efforts to pursue justice in Ukraine are facing some of the same obstacles as in the former Yugoslavia – namely the incredibly high number of potential cases of war crimes and other international crimes to investigate (currently over 50,000) – so I am participating in some of these conversations, to make sure the same mistakes are not repeated. In sum, I intend to continue working on war crimes and accountability, and I suspect my next book will be about accountability in Ukraine.   


Interview: Katarina Damčević


Semiotics of Conflict 2019. All rights reserved.

Pattern by Harryarts.